#24: Math Snippets & Stories

Thanks to a year in which online instruction became the unexpected but necessary standard practice in higher ed, our community’s assumptions about what subjects can be taught without the physical classroom underwent a profound evolution. Even Dan and I were surprised to discover fellow academics teaching subjects as diverse and seemingly ill-suited to the virtual classroom as Ag Education, Biology Lab, Sculpture, and Urban Planning… in most cases long before a global pandemic forced the issue for so many.

What has also been surprising are the disciplines that had to scramble to get up to speed online. For example, one would have to assume that if ever there were academic subjects, and student audiences, that lend themselves to at least a flipped classroom approach to teaching, that list would have to include mathematics and computer science.  And yet, as we learned during a lively conversation with colleagues who teach courses on both of these subjects, there are some legitimate challenges to teaching the topics that make online instruction possible. 

We want to learn from you, too!  What hurdles have you overcome when transitioning face-to-face courses to the virtual classroom?  Share your online teaching story with us by leaving a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy or by sending an email to wiredivypodcast@gmail.com.

Because we finally had to do this, our department’s attitude towards online changed. We’re more open towards it now. I think a lot of graduate classes will be hybrid, or at least there will be an allowance for that. #highered #virtualclassroom

TRANSCRIPT

KIERAN  00:00  Hello, I’m Kieran Lindsey…

DAN  00:02  …I’m Dan Marcucci, and this is Wired Ivy.  We have combined 20 years of experience in the virtual classroom.

KIERAN  00:10  Dan lives in Pennsylvania, I live in Missouri, and we work for a university in Virginia. As part of a geographically distributed team we know from personal experience that online faculty and staff benefit from having access to their peers.

DAN  00:21  You may have been teaching online for a long time now or relatively new… you may have been thinking about a move to online or suddenly find yourself doing it… regardless, you are welcome in this virtual salon.  

KIERAN  00:31  Our goal is to create a collegial community for real academics working in virtual classrooms… a safe, supportive space where we can learn from one another and share what we’ve figured out.

MUSIC

KIERAN  00:46  Thanks to a year in which online instruction became the unexpected but necessary standard practice in higher ed, our community’s assumptions about what subjects can be taught without a physical classroom underwent a profound evolution. Even Dan and I were surprised to discover fellow academics teaching subjects as diverse and seemingly ill-suited to the virtual classroom as ag education, biology lab, sculpture, and urban planning… in most of these cases, long before a global pandemic forced the issue for so many.

What has also been surprising are the subjects that appear, at first glance, to have a natural affinity for online instruction. For example, one would have to assume that if ever there were academic subjects, and student audiences, aligned with at least a flipped classroom approach to teaching, that list would have to include mathematics and computer science.  After all, math and computer science provide the infrastructure that make virtual classrooms feasible. And yet, as we learned during a lively conversation with colleagues who teach in these disciplines, the pivot hasn’t always led to a slam dunk.

We want to learn from you, too!  What hurdles have you overcome when transitioning in-person courses to the virtual classroom?  Share your online teaching story with us by leaving a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy or by sending an email to wiredivypodcast@gmail.com.

MUSIC

DAN 02:04  We’re excited to have two guests today on Wired Ivy. They have mathematics and computer science expertise and long experience teaching both undergraduate and graduate learners. Gunes Ercal is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville. Her teaching encompasses discrete mathematics, bioinformatics, theory of computation, and algorithms. Gunes’ research interests include graph theory and its applications. Gunes we’re so glad to have you on Wired Ivy today.

GUNES 02:33  Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

DAN 02:34  Stacey Levine is Professor of Mathematics and the Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science in the McNulty College in the Graduate School of Liberal Arts at Duquesne University. Among other topics, she teaches linear algebra and differential equations, as well as digital image processing and optimization. Stacey’s research centers on the mathematical method for image processing, Stacey, welcome to Wired Ivy.

STACEY 02:58 Nice to be here. Thanks Dan.

KIERAN 03:00  It’s nice to meet you both!

DAN 03:01  So Kieran and I don’t really need introductions for the Wired Ivy audience, but I do want to sort of warn you both that several careers ago, Kieran was a computer programmer, so she knows a few things about computers. So you guys can all have a conversation probably on a level that I can’t. 

Although that said, I feel a little bit like a hostess at a Virginia Wolfe dinner party, because I know all of you and I’ve invited you to this table as it were, and you guys are just getting to meet each other for the first time. So I’ll try not to spill the soup and we’ll see how it goes from there. 

Kieran, why don’t you go ahead and start with some of the initial questions?

KIERAN 03:35  Sure. I like to start out by hearing people’s origin stories. So Gunes, let’s start with you. How long have you been teaching? How did you end up in academia? Tell us a little bit about your involvement with the teaching side of computer science and your subject matter.

GUNES  03:53  I taught as a teaching assistant at UCLA my second year of PhD in 2002. Then from Spring 2003 and the next three and a half years or so, I was continuously TA for theory of computation there.

I was always more interested in theoretical topics. It didn’t even occur to me to just go into industry right after my undergraduate degree. So it just didn’t really occur to me to do anything else. 

I also…. I, I, I liked teaching. I’m not going to say that I was completely natural at it or that I loved it by the end of my PhD  ‘cause I wouldn’t say that I even liked public speaking.

KIERAN 04:34  Mmmhmm.  Can you tell me a little bit about what your course load is and are you teaching undergrads? Graduate? Some combination of that? How many students are in the classes that you teach?  Give me a little overview of that if you wouldn’t mind. 

GUNES 04:45  It’s been affected by the pandemic, obviously.  I had been teaching Discrete Math in the Falls for some time. Our, our course load in the School of Engineering at SIUE is generally five courses per year, which is like three/two or two/three, right? Usually for me that would include Discrete Mathematics, which was in the Fall for computer science students. And then I would have either Bioinformatics or Theory of Computation or both, uh, and also CS 340, which is our Data Structures and Algorithms class. 

Discrete Mathematics, uh, last time I taught… if I had let everybody who wanted to be in, it would probably be up to 80 students, but it was probably like 65 or so. Undergraduate required class, uh, Data Structures and Algorithms… when I checked exactly a year ago, spring 2020 enrollment, it was, like, approximately 30 to 35 each section and there were two sections. 

Prior to the pandemic, like, Bioinformatics students, they’re not intimidated but they didn’t know how much biology background they needed to go into it and so they were not as attracted, uh, and a little bit fearful. And so that would usually have like between 15 and 20, sometimes it would be like 12 to 18. The pandemic had an interesting effect on that particular class, I will say.  And then Theory of Computation, I would usually have from, anywhere from 15 to 25. 

KIERAN 06:09  And I’ll just say, as somebody who has been in both sort of the mathematics/computer science side of things and the biology side of things, biology is scarier. It’s a lot harder to predict, right? [laughing]

Stacey, can you also give us a little bit of your background? How long you’ve been teaching, how you ended up in academia, what kind of courses you’re teaching, that kind of thing?

STACEY 06:27  Sure. I kind of followed my nose and fell into academia. So, when I was an undergrad I tutored while I was on campus and I actually loved it. It kind of is right up my alley, and I was friends with all my tutors cause we were all majors together. And I discovered, the summer between my junior and senior year, you could apply to graduate school, they would pay you to be a TA, and pay for graduate school, and you didn’t have to apply for a job. And that sounded like a fabulous path for somebody who liked math and liked teaching. And so I said, sure, I’ll just go with that. 

So I applied and got into a PhD program. Not necessarily the usual path maybe, um, but, but it did work out. And I did really enjoy teaching as a, as a grad student.

By my second semester they were giving me my own classes so I got to really do a lot of fun things. I got to, it was at the University of Florida, teaching, you know, several-hundred-people lecture halls, which I enjoyed. I taught smaller classes. I had a mix of things, classes in different formats. And yeah, and I’ve been at Duquesne for 20 years now.

KIERAN 07:30  You mentioned that you’ve never, you have not ever taught online prior to the pandemic, is that correct?

STACEY 07:34 Prior to March 17th, 2020, something around there? [laughing]

KIERAN 07:41  Had you ever taken an online course yourself? 

STACEY 07:43  Nope. 

KIERAN 07:43  Gunes, how about you? Have, had you ever taught anything online before?

GUNES 07:47  No, I had not. 

KIERAN 07:47  Had you ever taken anything? 

GUNES 07:49  No, I had not.

DAN 07:50  Well, yeah. I want to go back, I guess, to March 17th of last year or March 10th or whenever. Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to, it happened over their Spring Break on and they had basically no notice. So, uh, it’s been a year since we’ve had, in higher education, this sudden pivot to emergency remote learning. You have both said, really no prior training in the area, and it just had to happen all of a sudden. I think you’ve even mentioned a little bit how you satisfied the Spring courses.

The 10,000 foot question is, so how was it? Was it fun? What was your initial response to having to make that pivot? Why don’t we start with you, Stacey, and then, we can hear from Gunes.

STACEY 08:26  I, I was only teaching one course because I’m Department Chair and I have a grant and research, and so a bunch of things going on. I had my one class of 30 students, but I found because I’m Department Chair, I was mainly focused on the fact, in Mathematics and Computer Science, particularly in mathematics, we have so many sections. We have our tenure/tenure-track faculty, non-tenure track faculty, adjuncts, graduate students… so many people,  that I was mostly concerned, making sure everybody had the resources they needed to pivot to online. 

And then I panicked and realized I had to prepare my own class and I didn’t know what I was doing, so… As, as everyone was getting settled, we had… we had had our Spring Break, came back from Spring Break, and then found out Wednesday when we got back, we were going to have two days off, I think Thursday and Friday, and then the following Monday we were going online.  So I think I had about 24 hours and I spent a lot of time figuring out how to write with Notability and how to, so I could just give my lectures, and just was thrown into it.

DAN 09:30  Had you been using your LMS, whether it was, I don’t know, Canvas or Blackboard? I don’t know what you use at Duquesne. Had you been using it already in your courses? Was your material up there already?

STACEY 09:39  Yes. So I’ve used Blackboard for years. That’s what we use. And most of us did, not everyone in the department was using Blackboard but most of us were. So yes, a lot of materials were up there but I didn’t have pre-prepared lecture notes. I use my 85 boards around the room and that was certainly quite a challenge and… 

DAN 09:57  What I’m hearing is that the class that you were teaching, you continue to teach synchronously for the rest of the semester?

STACEY 10:03  Yep, synchronously.

DAN 10:04  How about you Gunes? How, how did it feel last March?  Was it fun?

GUNES 10:09  [Laughing] As you know, I have a five-year-old and I know other people also have small kids. And my house is not that big, okay? Not at all. The issue of getting back into teaching online… it took me at least a couple of weeks from the time that we learned that we were going to do that.

There’s also the issue of did I want to teach online? For one whole year, you know, I was, I had worked on proposing my Bioinformatics class to be on, an online class, a new online elective. So I was actually wanting to do online, previously.

And it goes through this, you know, bureaucratic process, and discussions in the department and stuff for everything, you know, every change of, uh, format that we are making we have the departmental approval, and then it goes through this multiple levels of approval.

So I was a little bit annoyed — and I have no right to be because, of course, there was a pandemic — but I had already, you know, for a while, like, been waiting on the approval of this thing to be online and then all of a sudden I have to put all of my courses online at once. Like normally this is, like, a very big preparation to prepare an online course and all of a sudden we’re all put into this together for all of our courses in the middle of the term, right?

I had three classes at that time: two sections of Algorithms, and then one Theory of Computation. And I was more than halfway through… actually in, in the Algorithms class I had gotten quite far along in their required subject matter for their projects and assignments, and they were going to have a lot of, like, group activities after that. So I felt I had a lot of flexibility in that class, which had the most students.

And, um, they’re undergraduates. They’re emailing me and they’re telling me how they have connection problems. We have some students who live, you know, in very rural Illinois areas. There’s other students who live near East St. Louis, others in Chicago, and they’re all dealing with their own stuff. So thank goodness I had the flexibility. We had already covered a lot of the subject matter. I could do, like, review-ish things. 

All of mine by the way, were asynchronous. I, there was no way that with my four year old I was going to be able to do synchronous classes. I’m sorry. Even the way I did it asynchronously there would be multiple rounds of having to redo videos. But it was a good exercise. I liked it, actually. 

Eventually, though, it was good. And it was interesting, you know, uh, making a lot of these activities online. It was a very big time effort, but it was definitely worthwhile by, by the end.

DAN  12:36  You’ve sort of alluded to some of the students’ responses… I’m wondering what they said to you as far as if they liked being online, above and beyond the sort of connection and technical issues. And also if they kind of felt as connected, you know, with the course or with the program or with school. I mean, did they say anything to you about that?

GUNES 12:53  So in the Fall term I had 40 students. I had a full load on Theory of Computation. They would never have more than 25 because of the rooms, but it would never, like, fill to 25, and then all of a sudden it’s 40. Now there could be multiple reasons for that. 

DAN 13:08  Growing larger than the rooms would have allowed them otherwise.

GUNES 13:11  Right? Given that it was asynchronous, I, I allow them, as long as they give me 24 hours in advance notice, they, they can do office hours with me by appointment. I also would do review sessions before their quiz tests.  On the CS 340 I did have some positive feedback, in fact.

KIERAN 13:26  Since one of you taught asynchronously and the other synchronously, and because all of our courses are taught asynchronously, intentionally, I’m curious, where are your students usually based? 

Gunes, you chose asynchronous because it worked for you. Generally speaking, it works pretty well for, for students, too, although some of them miss that accountability of having to log in at a particular time. For synchronous, if the students are based farther afield, the whole issue of when the course is taught can be an issue.

Stacey, since you taught synchronously, can you speak to that? And then I’ll come back to Gunes and get her thoughts on how that played out with her specific students.

STACEY 13:57  We do offer some online courses in our department and for some context, I’ve watched people prepare them and, as Gunes was saying, and you all know, it’s a long process to put together a really well done asynchronous class, right? To keep the students engaged when you’re not physically engaged or engaged at the same time.

KIERAN 14:16  You can’t just walk into the room and give a lecture off the cuff.

STACEY 14:19  No! 

KIERAN 14:19  And also it’s recorded so if you do… [laughing]

STACEY 14:22  Exactly.  You know, several of our faculty who had taught online, when we made the transition were taking all of their courses and creating perfect online versions, and were not sleeping, which petrified me. I’m like, I don’t have, I knew I did not have the time to put together these well done lecture snippets that would go well. I, I had no idea how to do that and I didn’t have the training. So part of the reason for staying synchronous was that, number one, is I didn’t have the training and didn’t know how to do it well. 

The second thing was, is that our students started synchronously and I think a lot of them because of how they started. They didn’t register for online courses. Some of them did fine with some of the asynchronous. Instruction and found out, “Oh, maybe I like this better than I thought.” But there were a lot of students that were so overwhelmed and petrified that all of a sudden they had to go home, their lives were turned upside down, turned out after a few synchronous sessions, it seemed to work. And a lot of them, when they, they would pop on for office hours, they would say, “I, I’m really glad we have these sessions,” because it just gave them a sense of normalcy in their life.  

Even though they’re working from their high school bedroom, you know, it was normal. There was something normal about it. I think that made a big difference in why the synchronous worked really well.

DAN 15:33  Of course, Duquesne is a private Catholic university in Pittsburgh. But I’m, I, I get the sense that most of your students are within a couple of times zones of, of Pittsburgh. 

STACEY 15:43  Yes.

DAN 15:43  You weren’t dealing with people in Korea or anything, were you?

STACEY 15:45  No, and that was a big benefit.

Now we do have a small masters program. Some of our students in the master’s program do come from Asia and other places. Some tried to go home right away. That caused some issues but the, the masters, that was very targeted, so we could handle the master’s students in a different way if need be. 

Now in my class, I didn’t have any issues with this, but there were other faculty members who had students that had bad internet connections. I did have one student that had trouble on and off, but a lot of them are from the Pennsylvania area or within a few time zones.

KIERAN 16:19  Right, right.  Gunes how did the asynchronous work for the students in your program?  We know that it was a no-brainer for you as the instructor. 

DAN 16:27  Or no option.

GUNES 16:28  Well, initially it was no option and then, then I continued in the Fall. One of the classes I had, like I said, the Bioinformatics, I had already proposed that and it was approved, prior to the pandemic, right?

Now I will say, um, there is a difference between teaching like an intro, uh, class to freshmen or sophomores and a senior slash graduate elective.  And secondly, I even think there’s a difference between computer science and mathematics.  

I don’t know, like, if I taught discrete mathematics, I don’t think I could have done that asynchronously. That’s like a freshman-slash-sophomore class. My friends who do teach discrete mathematics elsewhere they have, let’s say, hundreds of students, multiple sections, and their breakout rooms are insane. It will be both a combination of asynchronous prior-made videos, and then synchronous kind of group activities.

It’s also differences in what the students are accustomed to.

KIERAN 17:17  People can see the value of having the flexibility of asynchronous. Where they get hung up on it is that if they don’t lock it into their schedule, and treat it as if it were being taught at that point, and stick to it, it gets postponed and postponed.

GUNES 17:33  That, that is absolutely correct. And I just want to say, like, in terms of feedback from students, I had a very lovely feedback from a student. He said he loves the asynchronous.  He likes it that he can go back and re-watch parts that he gets stuck on. 

KIERAN 17:47  Mmmhmm.  And that makes sense, when you think about it. If an instructor is really on a roll, often the students are just stenographers, try to write down every word, hoping their notes will be close enough to what was said that they’ll make sense when there’s time to read them and think about it. We can get around that issue completely by having something prerecorded, because then students can listen for comprehension, knowing they can go back as often as necessary. They can still take notes, and probably should, since writing things down can help to secure the ideas in our memory, but the ephemeral nature of a live lecture is, to my mind, one of the negative aspects of that traditional approach.

STACEY 18:20  It has to be done really well and you have to know what you’re doing. Having these little snippets of lectures are really nice, where you can have examples. And so I do know there were several faculty who did create these lovely online asynchronous courses for their students.  And some of the students really like those snippets, right? Because they can rewatch them over and over.  But again, it’s that level of self-discipline that does become the challenge.

KIERAN 18:44  Yeah.  I do want to follow up on one thing about synchronous.  Did you record them as you were having the classes? You’re nodding, and that’s best practices, right?  We don’t want people to think that just because the course is taught synchronously, students don’t still have access to that video to go back over it again. 

One of the things that comes that has come out of online instruction is that, well, one, you have to record it anyway because you never know if somebody is going to lose their internet connection. 

Often it’s that live-stream recording that helps instructors to see the value of prerecording content. Seeing and hearing yourself leads directly to the desire to polish your presentation, through re-takes, better lighting, and editing, so the final file is closer to how we envision ourselves as educators and speakers [laughing]. Once the lecture is recorded the natural next question is “What do I do with my synchronous teaching time now?”  It’s a progression from back-up recording to intentional video production to using live time for something more interactive.

STACEY 19:39  When I was a graduate student, the way they trained us is, they videoed us proving the Pythagorean theorem. And it was the worst thing in the world to watch myself do this. I was 21 years old and it was terrible. So I have purposely not watched any of the videos. It’s terrible I’m admitting that, but I am petrified to the students, at least the feedback. I haven’t heard that they’re terrible so I’m hiding.

KIERAN 20:05  Early on when I was teaching, I thought it was important to just be off the cuff — and this was early on so the technology was a little different. And so I wasn’t using a script because I thought, no, it seems more natural if I’m just kind of off the cuff. 

And then at the end, when I got the reviews back, I had a number of students to talk to me about how annoying it was to hear me go um, um, uh, you know, um, yeah, and that was the end of my off the cuff [laughing]. I at least had talking points from that point on because exactly the experience that you’re talking about right there, which is, I had no idea. 

I was kind of outraged. “Come on, that’s pretty nitpicky. That’s a problem you have with this course, is that I say um and uh every now and then?”  But I took a breath. I listened back to it, and went, “Damn it. They really have a point there. I’m certainly finding it annoying.”

GUNES 20:55  I was initially kind of petrified… like, the thing actually that delayed my going online… I’m, uh, self-conscious, right. I don’t like seeing myself in the corner. Was I going to be distracted by that thumbnail or whatever? And, and then of course how I’m speaking and then later, am I going to edit it, etc., etc. 

Now, I’m just noticing, right — Kieran, Stacey, me — we’re women also.  I wonder if that increases our self-consciousness about that, how others view us. In the teaching evaluations students, uh, may make more comments about how women speak in their appearance perhaps then their male counterparts.  

KIERAN 21:28 We’re trained from birth…

GUNES 21:30  So are we sufficiently pleasant, right? [laughing] Yeah.

KIERAN 21:34  You should smile more!

GUNES 21:35  Yeah.

DAN 21:35 Maybe our episode title will be the pleasant mathematicians. You can do that, right?

KIERAN 21:39 [laughing]

GUNES 21:39  Oh yes [laughing]

DAN 21:43  Stacey and Gunes, do you have questions of each other ,or anything of us that, you know, you’ve thought of so far?

STACEY 21:48  I don’t know, it sounds like most of you all teach asynchronously, but one of the biggest challenge with the synchronous instruction — we’re teaching hybrid right now — so I have to teach synchronously, cause I have students physically in the classroom while I’m teaching those remotely.

KIERAN 22:03  So when you say hybrid, you mean some students physically present in the class and some attending virtually.  You’re nodding so, yes.  What you’re talking about is the hardest thing.

STACEY 22:13  Yes. It’s the worst of all worlds for an instructor (laughing).  

KIERAN 22:18 And for the students, too. Because it’s just natural for the instructor to focus on the people in the classroom. No matter where she is in the room the students are in her visual field, but if she steps away from the computer the virtual students disappear, especially if they’ve been muted.  If there’s no moderator keeping an eye on the virtual students it doesn’t matter that they’ve raised their hands because the instructor doesn’t see them, or she sees the question long after the class has moved on to a new subject.  

This happened to me once in a faculty training on, believe it or not, Best Practices for Online Instruction. The class was a mix of in-person and virtual attendees, the speaker stepped away from the podium, started taking questions from people in the room. Then, as the presentation was winding down, she came back to the podium, saw her screen, and said, “Oh, I see we had some questions on Zoom. Sorry about that! We’re running out of time, though, so just email me and I’ll answer there.”  

If the speaker looked at the chat thread later she also saw a running commentary from the Zoom folks about how best practices should include not ignoring your virtual attendees (laughing).

STACEY 23:16  You know for smaller classes it works better because you can see the students, you know, you can see the mix a bit better.  It gets, the larger the class gets the more challenging. I’m grateful we have this as an option because we do have students who want to be in the classroom. So we’re able to serve both communities, but it’s so challenging. It’s not as challenging as we thought it would be. At first, we had no idea if it would work at all, and it does work. 

There are certain things that, although we had this issue with online, we found group work was very challenging because breakout rooms… it’s one thing… I think it’s different when it’s discussion in a breakout room.  It’s another thing where… I, I have my students do group work all the time. I’ll give them an example and I’ll give them a little challenging problem and say, get together and discuss. If I’m in the room I can monitor them all simultaneously. But if I have to go from breakout room to breakout room to breakout room, by the time of my third or fourth room, I go in and some of them have been sitting there staring at each other ‘cause no one knew how to start. But I would know that if we were all physically in the same space. 

So we’ve had challenges with breakout rooms.  It’s very challenging because there’s students don’t want to put their cameras on, which makes it really hard to get to know your students in the same way that those who do put their cameras on or that are in the classroom. those are really some of the challenges we’ve been working to.

KIERAN 24:27  Right. There definitely is a difference between doing group work in-person or online, synchronously or asynchronously. But again, it depends on the audience. Some are better prepared to do one format or another, or better suited to do one format over another. We’ve definitely heard about breakout room issues from other guests, such as the instructor pops in and discovered the students are all talking about what they’re going to do this weekend rather than the problem they were assigned.

DAN 24:53  Stacey, although you didn’t use the exact words, I think you mentioned something like a flipped classroom, so the students were able to listen to the lectures on their own time. It strikes me that mathematics and computer science kind of lend themselves to that flipped approach where they’re going to listen to lectures, absorb the resources, then come back to the group work or to class to do the problem-solving and other hands-on, real-time work. Is that something you’ve intentionally tried to leverage? 

STACEY 25:19  You know, I teach a course as a flipped classroom, just in the usual, you know, non-pandemic, just in the classroom, because there are some video lectures that were already prepared that are really quite nice. And I have these problem sets where they’re supposed to watch the lecture and then do these kinds of pre-problems, so they’re ready to come into class to discuss. Some of the faculty members have done more flipped classroom, even last spring, and then this year. 

What’s interesting is that the students who watch the videos say they’re fabulous. But if you’re a math or computer science, you can read the book and figure out from examples. That’s a lot quicker than watching someone else explain it. 

So that’s what you do is you follow the examples. And depending on the level of class you’re in, especially in the lower level classes where it’s more computation, you follow the examples, you figure it out. And if you’re able to solve the problems you’re given, you’re done. You don’t need to listen to a lecture. You don’t need to read. You don’t need to do anything else. So they only use these lectures when they really need to. They typically approach it, “Let me go to the problem set, see what I can figure out. I can’t figure it out. Is there an example I can mimic? And if they’re really stuck, then they go back to the, the lecture snippets.”

So we spend all this time preparing these lovely things that don’t get so much traction. Typically, it’s towards the end of the semester that the student who’s barely passing, that you’re like, “Please watch the snippets and they watch it.”  And they’re like, “Those were great! I should have done that from the beginning of this semester!”

KIERAN 26:46  Gunes, is that something you’ve seen?

GUNES 26:48  Well, um, so I had never done flipped classroom prior to the pandemic. I enjoyed the energy of being in a classroom. You know, if I love some topic, like I do, like describing it on the board. 

Right. So, uh, I didn’t know how nice it was going to be that I can zoom in and out here. And then it’s an, it’s basically an enormous whiteboard. So I really liked it, too, towards the end, but I actually had a resistance even to using that technology, initially. Some folks will use it, you know, during class, actually, like, even in biology they were using their iPad.

I do like whiteboard, I like the physical whiteboard. I do like, you know, going up and drawing lots of pictures and explaining and stuff.  But I had not, prior to the pandemic, I made those, you know, videos in the future. I think I would though. Now that I went through this, and now that also some topics are common across different classes.

KIERAN 27:38  Well, and there’s existing content out there for a lot of things that can be repurposed, so that you can focus your attention on the specifics of what you want to do with your class or what you want to do with your students instead of spending your time producing a video that takes somebody through a process.

We use TEDtalks, often. Why wouldn’t you, you know?  You’ve got a world, expert on something, it’s wonderfully produced, and it adds another voice to the class. but we’re teaching, teaching a different subject than mathematics. 

GUNES 28:06  Yeah, honestly, this is going to sound maybe very weird and strange, especially for computer scientists, but I cannot stand through another person’s lecture on my topic. I don’t know why. This is terrible [laughing]. But I will, you know, listen at the beginning and then I’ll either get bored or, like, I think because I teach so much building upon examples.

I know there’s excellent material, nicely made, smooth, et cetera. Uh, but, um, With the very, with the exception of like essentially like little movies, like in biology, you know, explaining, um, something, but with the exception of, you know, some things that are essentially some kind of like animations or something like this, um, it’s difficult for me, myself to sit through another person…

KIERAN 28:34 Well, you know, that’s really interesting. I was thinking about this as you were describing how you like to get up and move around… so many colleagues have said they miss being able to move around instead of sitting at a desk, tied to a computer screen. And yet how often do instructors turn that inclination around and ask if students would prefer to be more active, not just sit passively listening and taking notes. Isn’t it funny how we assume, through acculturation and our own experiences, that certain activities and behaviors belong with certain roles. Do we really think that teaching is a physically dynamic activity but learners need to sit still so they can absorb what we’re saying, like a sponge? There’s certainly research to suggest other learning modalities are more effective, at least for some students.

GUNES 29:15  That’s true [laughing].

STACEY 29:15  That’s such a good point because especially, I mean, certainly in mathematics, lectures go so much more nicely when the students can do group work. When you can do some lecture and then let them just dig into it, and talk, and then you can move around the room and… because then they’re having just a different level of interaction, it breaks it up. So that’s been one thing that’s been so difficult is when you have a synchronous lecture is not being able to do that.

KIERAN 29:39  Yeah.  Because, as you just explained, Stacey, the natural tendency for many of these students is to take an active approach to the content, as in, “Give me the problem set and let me see what I can do. If I need help I’ll access a recorded lecture or ask for assistance strategically. 

I wonder if moving so many of these courses into a virtual space will result in greater adoption of a flipped approach to teaching these subjects, to make the best use of face-to-face time for that active engagement. The recorded lectures prime the pump, so to speak, for in-person class meetings that function as collaborative working spaces.

STACEY 30:12  As you’re speaking, Kieran, it just made me think about… it really focuses on the problem sets. You have to be so thoughtful about what your assignments are. Because if we’re really thinking that’s the way of teaching, and it does go backwards like this is: Here’s exactly what I want you to learn, and if you can do all of this, then you’re great. So whatever means you can fill in that knowledge, whether it be the book and you don’t need me at all because the book was great. I could. Right. You can figure out the problems.

But if you do that you miss the whole story.  And really how important is that whole story? In mathematics, it is a whole story. You know, you start from the beginning. You’re building up a theory, even in linear algebra you’re building up these concepts one on the other. So is it sufficient enough to learn the snippets to solve the problems? Or do they have to hear that whole story? Or maybe, I don’t know, it’s a question.

KIERAN 31:04  That was my problem as I got into higher mathematics [laughing]. For a long time I got by with what I called light bulb moments, where I would have a leap of understanding from step 5 to step 10 in a 10-step problem. I loved those moments because I could finish my problems sets quickly [laughing].  But the joke was on me because later I did have to go back and review to get those last 5 steps when I realized, oh yeah, I actually do need them to understand how to solve more difficult problems.

DAN 31:31  I’ve taken a lot of math because I have an engineering degree but, even in the courses that I’m teaching now, some of the issues are the same, which is that you really have got to be very intentional about how you structure a lesson. You’ve got to be very clear about what your learning objectives are going to be, and then you have to have a series of activities. And whether you set it up so that they go through these activities sequentially, or in parallel, or they work in groups, the point is that has to all be done before the lesson gets published. And that’s kind of something that’s important about online learning is you really got to put a lot of energy into designing the lesson and presumably designing the course as well. 

You know, the examples that you want to give are kind of analogous to the case studies that I use.  I’m very proud of my case studies. I’m with you, Gunes, on that one. It’s like, “No, no, that’s that’s an interesting way of explaining it, but I think I’ve kind of better case study.” You know, that kind of thing. But the intentionality and the work that goes into online, from the instructor’s perspective, it kind of really restructures our workload I find.

KIERAN 32:31  And, you know, this is going to surprise people who have not taught online, although that’s a smaller minority now [laughing]… 

DAN 32:37  It’s almost nobody now. 

KIERAN 32:39  Right.  But the issue that comes to mind for me is that the education field considers the physical classroom the default — how things are supposed to be. And yet the ephemeral natural of that real-time delivery, that live performance, leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  Does it actually work? Does it work equally well, or poorly, for all students? In some ways, grades are the only available metric for that analysis but are they the only relevant metric?

By contrast, the online environment provides a wealth of data on each individual student, at least potentially. As we’ve discussed before, you can see exactly who participated in a discussion. You can see which students watched a pre-recorded video, whether they watched to the end, whether they watched some sections more than once. The instructor can see patterns in class engagement and performance. Even in a synchronously delivered course there should be a recording of the video-conference.

That has the potential to hold online instruction to another standard than classroom instruction. I won’t say it’s a higher standard but it is different because it can be reviewed. When you lecture in a classroom you can walk back to your office thinking, “Wow, I hit that one out of the park!”

DAN 33:42   And no one can prove otherwise [laughing]

KIERAN 33:44  Right? [laughing] I mean, you might ask the students and they might differ, but as long as you don’t ask for any input, you’re golden, right? You can keep moving along with that idea. 

I don’t think it’s more work. I think it’s front-loaded work, but I don’t know. I might be changing my mind about that [laughing]

DAN 34:00  I, it might be more work, too, but it’s definitely front-loaded.

KIERAN 34:02  Yeah. Yeah.

GUNES 34:03  I, I do want to say at least one thing regarding the front-loaded. So the pandemic obviously changed some of that, you know, with the middle of, for many of us who were not online previously. So, so my videos are not so polished. You know, I should probably divide it up. Some of them are long. But then I would have at least hundreds of tiny snippets then.

KIERAN 34:23  And they can hit pause. 

GUNES 34:24 Yeah.

KIERAN 34:24  That’s one thing that you can’t do in the real time lecture, synchronous or in the classroom, right? It’s like, if you need a minute, you can’t hit pause, right [laughing].

GUNES 34:35 Exactly.

DAN 34:35   It makes me, it makes me wonder, now that you’ve had, you both have this experience of teaching online, and you’re talking a little bit, Gunes, about how you’ll handle the bioinformatics course in new iterations… Do you think this experience of having taught online is going to then reflect back on, on all of your teaching? I mean, for the courses that eventually we will go back to, you know, something that’s in-person, do you think it’s changing the way you’ll approach teaching?

GUNES 35:02 100% for me. 

DAN 35:03  Well, I guess the follow-up question will be how?

GUNES 35:07   Well, the flipped, right? Like, so even, like, in Discrete Mathematics where I have to do, I feel, a lot of review each next, each subsequent class, like I’m reviewing partly the previous class and still in a room of 60 something students, I still, you know, just because of the fundamental subject matter, no matter how, in my opinion, interestingly, and who enthusiastically I’m teaching, they still, part, part of them are still just not catching it.

I think I, I will have to incorporate pre-produced video lectures. So our department’s attitude towards online changed. They’re more open towards it now, but more for the graduate things, you know? I think a lot of them will be hybrid, partly online at least.

DAN 35:51  So we haven’t really put Stacy on the spot yet about if she is going to do anything going forward. So has this online experience — and, and, you know, you’re teaching load’s a little bit lighter because you are chair right now. So you can, you can live vicariously and talk about your faculty and your department, too, if you want to. Do you see this changing the way classes are taught that, you know, are, are campus based.

STACEY 36:12  Absolutely. I mean, I, I think there will still be room for in the classroom. And I think that having this kind of, this asynchronous activity and all the mix that active learning, it’s, it’s gotta be part of what’s in the classroom.

But I think we’ll be more mindful of our students’ time when they’re in the classroom. Honestly, the fact that we do have these, um, electronic communication. So even synchronous, the fact that I can do Zoom office hours. My student doesn’t have to say, “I can’t make it to your office hours cause my job goes until three and I can’t make it to campus.”  So easy to just hop onto Zoom and share a whiteboard.

I also have the option. If I go to a conference, I don’t have to find a substitute or I can record lectures. I can even do a synchronous zoom lecture. If that’s what my students are used to, I can do that from Italy or who knows wherever I might be. 

Yes. I think there’s a lot of things that are wonderful from it, things that will be challenging from it.

KIERAN 37:06 There’s never going to be a one size fits all. There just never is, you know, but that’s okay.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t improve each individual offering and do a better job. We’ve been doing that all along, and this is just the next iteration of, of how we go about that. 

DAN  37:18  You know, now that we’re warmed up, we could go another two hours. I can tell that, that it’s not that we’ve run out of topics.  

STACEY 37:24   I know. I’ve got questions for Gunes now [laughing].

DAN 37:25  This is fantastic. Stacey Levine from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Gunes Ercal from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. This has just been a wonderful conversation. We’ve gotta do it again soon. 

KIERAN  37:38  Yeah, yeah. Definitely. Thank you so much.

STACEY 37:41   Pleasure. 

GUNES 37:41   Really enjoyed it.

KIERAN  37:42  Really generous of both of you to spend this time with us.

MUSIC

KIERAN 37:47  Now we want to hear what you have to say!  Send us your questions, comments, and suggestions. You can record a voice message, send an email, or leave a comment on our website, wiredivy.org. And help Wired Ivy grow by sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing us on your favorite podcast app.

DAN 38:03  Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Dan Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content. Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.

KIERAN 38:18  Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

DAN 38:25  Until next time, this is Dan Marcucci,

KIERAN 38:27  And I’m Kieran Lindsey. 

KIERAN and DAN 38:28  Let’s stay connected!

I think we’ll be more mindful of our students’ time. Even if you’re teaching a face-to-face class, asynchronous activity has gotta be part of the mix. #highered #virtualclassroom

GUEST BIOS & RESOURCES

Gunes Ercal is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville. She received her PhD in Computer Science from UCLA in 2008, and her BS in Mathematics and Computer Science from University of Southern California in 2001. Her teaching encompasses discrete mathematics, bioinformatics, theory of computation, and algorithms. Gunes’ research interests include graph theory and its applications.

Stacey Levine is Professor of Mathematics and Chair of the Department of Mathematics in the McAnulty College and the Graduate School of Liberal Arts at Duquesne University.  She received her BS, MS, and PhD from the University of Florida. Among other topics, she teaches linear algebra and differential equations as well as digital image processing and optimization. Stacey’s research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and centers on the mathematics of digital images.

Resources:

We welcome your questions, feedback, and suggestions for future episodes. Join our Wired Ivy LinkedIn Group, tweet us @wiredivy,  or look for the bright blue Talk to Wired Ivy tab on the right side of this screen to leave us a voice message!

I didn’t know how nice it was going to be to use Zoom. It’s basically an enormous whiteboard! I really liked it but I had a resistance even to using that technology, initially. #highered #onlineteaching #virtualclassroom

Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Daniel Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.  Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

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